Sony KDL-42W653A £550
18th Sep 2013 | 10:58
Sony targets the budget market with admirable results
The first thing you need to do with the 42W653A is put aside all the prattle and hyperbole swilling around the AV world right now about 4K/Ultra HD, OLED, curved screens and other high-end fancy stuff. For this TV is ultimately about one thing, and one thing only: price. At £550 for a 42-inch TV, the best we can hope for is that it delivers a good slice of Sony's newfound TV picture quality without breaking the bank.
In delivering on this value promise, though, Sony clearly has to make compromises somewhere. Sorting through the impact of these will be at the heart of our assessment of the 42W653A – and right away we can see a few issues of potential concern.
Its design and build quality are both clearly inferior to Sony's more expensive sets. There's no 3D support and no sign of the local dimming lighting engine that worked so superbly on Sony's W9 and X9 series. There's no Sony TriLuminos colour technology, and the set only delivers a 200Hz-like effect compared with the 800Hz engines employed higher up Sony's range.
It's not all doom and gloom, though, for the 42W653A does still retain Sony's latest Smart TV engine, as well as Sony's impressive X-Reality Pro video processing system.
It doesn't help raise our hopes for the 42W653A's performance, however, that the 47W805 range one level up from the W653A series turned out to be a disappointment, with some fairly significant backlighting problems. It's only when stepping far higher up the price ladder to the W905A series that Sony's range gets seriously tasty.
The other models currently available in the W6 series are the 32-inch 32W653A and the 50-inch 50W656A.
We'll look at potential worthwhile rivals later on, but briefly models that spring to mind are the Toshiba 40L6353 and Samsung UE40F6400.
At first glance the 42W653A looks pretty handy from a design perspective. Its silver stand is remarkably trim for something holding up a 42-inch TV, and the shiny silver box hanging from the TV's bottom edge containing the TV's processing chips is distinctive and cute.
However, its black bezel is neither as sleek nor as well built as those wrapped around Sony's posher 2013 TVs. Nor is there any sign of the 'Sense of Quartz' reflective bluish stripe feature that helps Sony's W805A and W905A models stand out from the crowd.
Still, while the 42W653A might not find itself taking pride of place in any classic design museums anytime soon, it still looks a bit better overall than your average budget TV.
Ins and outs
The 42W653A's relatively budget nature becomes more apparent when you spin the TV round and check out its rear, though. We were rather startled to find only two HDMIs when the vast majority of modern TVs carry twice that number. And there's only one USB port where most TVs offer at least two.
Neither of these issues needs to be a deal breaker, of course. Many of the 42W653A's target audience likely won't need any more HDMIs and USBs than the 42W653A offers. And even if they do, you can add external switchboxes – at least where the HDMIs are concerned. However, only having so few HDMIs and USBs does raise concerns about the extent of the set's AV and multimedia ambitions.
These concerns are hardly assuaged by the fact that the HDMIs aren't built to the 3D spec. Which means, of course, that the TV isn't capable of playing 3D. But aside from maybe reinforcing the sense of the TV lacking ambition, it's becoming ever more apparent that 3D is of minimal-to-no importance to your average household.
There's also a bit of good news where the 42W653A's multimedia talents are concerned. For as well as supporting playback of a handily expansive set of video, photo and music file formats via its solitary USB, it can also play the same sort of files from networked computers via a LAN port or built-in Wi-Fi system.
Sony Entertainment Network
These network options also allow you to delve into the joys of the Sony Entertainment Network – Sony's ring-fenced online content system. This system is far from perfect. For starters, its interface is rather basic compared with the slick and well-structured smart TV menus found on some rival TVs this year, making it harder to track down content quickly. It's also not got nearly as many apps to its name as the latest services from Samsung and LG - and among the content sources it lacks are the 4OD and ITV Player catch-up TV portals currently exclusively supported by Samsung's online TV platform.
However, we'd take quality over quantity any day when it comes to online TV apps, where quality more often than not refers to video streaming services. And in this respect, despite the lack of ITV Player and 4OD support, the 42W653A does pretty well. The likes of Netflix, Lovefilm, Sony's own Video Unlimited and World of TV services join the BBC News, Sky News and the BBC Player and Demand 5 catch-up TV services.
There's a lot of pretty obscure video content too, but this is still more welcome than the reams of obscure non-video apps many rival online TV platforms clutter themselves up with.
When it comes to setting up the 42W653A's pictures, Sony's tendency to forge its own furrow with its set-up tools is in evidence. But once you get your head round the rather non-standard approach to things, the reality is that the 42W653A gives you a strong amount of flexibility over how its final pictures look, including a degree of colour, white balance and gamma management.
You're also given control over many elements of Sony's X-Reality Pro video processing engine including, most usefully, a pair of noise reduction systems, and Sony's various motion processing options. Just bear in mind that these options all need to be used with extreme care. Choosing the wrong setting (which basically means any of the most powerful settings on offer) can result in pictures looking processed and glitchy rather than cleaner and more immersive.
The last thing to touch on is the spec of 42W653A's panel. Its 200Hz emulation (it's a 100Hz panel with backlight blinking) should help motion clarity, and while its edge LED lighting system isn't backed up by local dimming, this doesn't automatically preclude it from producing a strong contrast performance. Especially as it doesn't use one of the notoriously low-contrast passive 3D panels used in the 47W805A.
Thankfully, the 42W653A quickly sets about comprehensively laying to rest the troubling ghost of its 47W805A sibling by producing some extremely robust black levels.
We piped a series of dark scenes into the set, and with every one of them we were impressed by both the naturalism and depth of the set's black colour reproduction. There's much less evidence of the grey clouding effect than we saw on the 47W805A. Shadow detailing is also much more evident, helping dark scenes achieve a sense of depth and texture that's more evenly matched with the look of bright scenes. This greater sense of spatial consistency with dark and light content is, of course, essential to producing an immersive, natural viewing experience.
It's a relief to see, too, that the 42W653A suffers scarcely at all from the sort of backlight clouding/inconsistencies that were once a recurring issue for Sony LCD TVs. Feeding it a black image with a bright white circle in the middle, with the backlight set to a sensibly low level, resulted in only the faintest trace of excess brightness in the TV's corners. This inconsistency is so subtle that it's pretty much undetectable during normal viewing, especially if there's any ambient light in your viewing room.
On the dark side
Being able to produce a credible black colour plays an important role, too, in bolstering the naturalism of dark scenes by enabling the 42W653A to produce a wider, subtler and more realistic-looking set of colour tones during dark scenes.
Don't start thinking at this point that the 42W653A delivers the goods with dark scenes as well as higher-end models like Sony's own W905A series or Samsung's F7000 and especially F8000 TVs. It doesn't get as black as those models, and also isn't quite as clever with its light management. Its dark scenes lack some of the punch and subtle detailing you get with the higher-end models. But for its money, the 42W653A's contrast performance can be considered seriously accomplished.
It's not only with dark scenes that the 42W653A impresses, either. It's got enough range and vibrancy to its colour palette to handle bright, colourful content eye-catchingly well too. Yet the power of its video processing means that this colour punch doesn't come at the expense of tonal subtlety. There's enough finesse in the 42W653A's tonal blends to make sure skin tones don't look plasticky, and there's little to no evidence of colour banding.
Nor is the colour richness beset by noise or colour bleed. In fact, noise levels generally are well controlled. This even holds true when watching standard definition upscaled to the screen's full HD resolution, as Sony's X-Reality Pro image processing centre proves far cleverer than the majority of picture engines in the sub-£600 42-inch marketplace. This is especially true when it comes to adding detail to standard definition sources while simultaneously stripping out MPEG blocking and mosquito noise.
Even ropey web-sourced content holds up pretty well on the 42W653A, such is the processing prowess on offer.
Yet another strong point of the 42W653A's performance compared with most similarly affordable TVs is the clarity of its HD images. It does a crisp job of reproducing every last detail of an HD source, and the set's motion handling is unusually clean. It doesn't suffer from the overt smearing over moving objects still seen on some budget TVs, and nor is judder severe enough to become a major distraction. In fact it's not a distraction at all if you employ the set's motion processing – and that processing's Clean setting is gentle enough to deliver de-juddering benefits without making the picture look unnatural.
The 42W653A's interface is a curious mix of the innovative and the rather basic. On the innovation side, there's a great new listings surfing system that lets you whizz through channels at lightning speed without interrupting your viewing on the main TV screen. Sony's supporting iOS and Android app also features a great level of presentation and some nifty features, including an off-TV listings tool.
However, the way all of Sony's online content is presented on the TV screen is pretty basic, with no real attempt being made to organise it, and only fairly rudimentary content-searching aids at your disposal.
It's also a pity Sony's smart apps don't allow you to stream video from your TV to your smart device (something many rivals offer this year).
In terms of Sony's set-up menus, they're generally quite straightforward once you've got your head around Sony's rather 'individual' phrasing for some features. The only area of concern is how difficult Sony has made it to find its extensive 'Scene' list of different picture presets. Some of these can have a quite profound impact on picture quality. Gamers in particular should definitely track the Scene list down (it's actually accessed by pressing the Option button on the remote). Selecting the Game setting can deliver a significant boost to the set's game performance, reducing its input lag to under 10ms. This is the lowest such figure we've ever recorded on a TV, in fact.
While the Smart TV interface lacks sophistication compared with some rivals this year, we can readily imagine casual, technophobic users actually liking it for its relative simplicity – even as they're forced to scroll through rows and rows of app icons to find the one they want!
Sony has been on serious audio form this year, thanks to the long-duct speaker technology used on its W905A series and the astounding magnetic fluid speaker array built into its X9005A 4K TVs. All of which unfortunately leads up to the discovery that the 42W653A isn't a particularly inspired audio performer.
In the plus column, its speakers are sensitive enough to tease out quite a lot of detail from the audio track, and can deliver these – despite their usually quite trebly nature – without making them sound harsh. However, the mid-range is rather cramped, and bass is in seriously short supply, leaving action scenes sounding thin and unconvincing.
The 42W653A proves definitively that Sony is not just a premium brand these days. It delivers more of Sony's 2013 picture quality prowess than we'd have expected to find on a £550 42-inch TV, along with a mostly superior online system. Really, the only big thing you have to sacrifice to get all this for so little money is a bit of design prowess and 3D!
Although the 42W653A undoubtedly made a bold statement right off the bat with its aggressive price, big questions still hung over it as we started our tests based on our unhappy experience with Sony's step-up 47W805A.
Fortunately it answers most of these questions in very positive fashion, though, replacing the limited contrast performance of the 47W805A with a much more credible black level response that immediately makes pictures of all sorts – especially films – look vastly more immersive and realistic.
Its pictures are also sharper and cleaner than you might expect for the set's money, and it backs its picture prowess up with a reasonably strong online system. Just bear in mind before splurging your cash that the set doesn't support 3D.
Picture quality is very good for such an affordable set, some aspects of the TV's design are strong, and there's an admirable focus on video streaming in the set's online functionality.
There's no 3D (if that bothers you), the video streaming services on offer don't include the ITV Player or 4OD at the time of writing, the smart TV interface lacks a little sophistication, and its audio doesn't live up to its picture quality.
Ducking out of 3D with the 42W653A has proved a masterstroke by Sony. Deciding to ditch a feature most people are no longer bothered about has enabled the brand to retain more of its latest picture processing power for the 42W653A. It has also allowed Sony to use a more contrast-rich source panel than they did with the W805 series.
The 42W653A's picture quality really is excellent for its money, while a ground-breakingly low input lag performance also makes it a stellar option for serious gamers.
There aren't too many direct rivals around in the 42W653A's price range. But one recently tested example would be the Toshiba 40L6353, which joins the Sony in ditching 3D and offering Smart TV and multimedia playback features. We've also seen Toshiba's set now selling for as little as £450 – that's £100 cheaper than the Sony.
However, Toshiba's smart system is much slower and less content heavy than Sony's, and the 40L6353's picture quality falls some way short of the 42W653A's.
A much more serious rival for the 42W653A if you value picture quality is the Samsung UE40F6400. This offers similarly impressive HD images and a superbly flexible and wide-ranging Smart TV platform, but its standard definition images aren't quite as good.